2012 New History
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02-2782-9555 # 226

The Flesh, the Soul and the Lord: Jesuit Discourse of the Body in Seventeenth-Century China

Pingyi Chu

Institute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica

This paper examines the anatomical knowledge of the human body transmitted to China by the Jesuits during the seventeenth century. Quite contrary to the conclusions of previous researchers, I argue that this anatomical knowledge cannot be categorized according to the classificatory framework of modern anatomy. Instead, this knowledge has to be seen as part of the religious package the Jesuits brought into China, through which the Jesuits demonstrated the great creative work of God, the working of the human soul, and the function of the body in recognizing the religious truth of Christianity.

This paper first reviews previous studies of Jesuit anatomical materials. I point out how these studies treat their subject asymmetrically by expurgating the religious messages within the texts. Thanks to this selective procedure, previous scholars have been able to argue that modern Western anatomy had been transmitted to China by the Jesuits. However, this scholars have failed to explain why the religious messages in the same texts are so insignificant when compared to with the knowledge similar to modern anatomy. This paper tries to offer a reading of these texts that accounts for the embedded religious messages.

My previous research led me to examine how the Jesuits in China defined medicine. In addition to the modern function of medicine, the Jesuits in China emphasized two other aspects of medicine: the interpretation of medical classics and the illumination of the origins of the soul. The Jesuits did not fabricate this seemingly strange definition of medicine on the spot: they transcribed the reality of contemporary Western medicine. Familiarity with Classical and Arabic medical traditions had been an integral part of medical education in the sixteenth and seventeenth century Jesuit colleges, while an examination of the functions of the body and the faculties of the soul was one of the primary concerns of medicine during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation eras. It was through this understanding of medicine that the Jesuits in China formulated a discourse of the human body which integrated religious messages into human anatomy.

The anatomy transmitted into China was primarily Galenic. The change wrought by the Jesuits was to substitute the Creator’s purposeful design of the body parts for Galen’s teleological explanation of the functions of these parts, thereby illuminating the wonders of the Creation for their alien audience. They also selectively emphasized the function of the sensory organs, the probes of the external world, thereby associating them with the Confucian concept of the pursuit of both profane and sacred knowledge (ke-chih格致) which, according to the Jesuits, was the purpose that God had in mind in creating human beings.  (The Jesuits used ke-chih in a manner similar to how Confucians had used it. For the Jesuits in China, ke-chih meant the pursuit of knowledge and salvation.)  The Jesuits, however, also warned that sensory pleasure could be dangerous; it had led, after all, to Man’s Fall.  Moreover, knowledge for knowledge’s sake is not the ultimate pursuit, which is to know God.  To achieve this goal, sensory faculties were not enough. Salvation required the capabilities of the soul, which memorized and integrated sense data, formulated thoughts, and made judgments commanding the body to act or to resist. Though the cooperation of body and soul provided man with a chance for salvation, this does not explain why the soul, which tends to be at war with the body, can actually vanquish the desire of the flesh. The resolution of this problem had to be explained by an external cause: God’s grace. It is this external cause that guaranteed salvation. However, man also played an important role in the process of his own salvation. The miracle of his body and soul, those creations of the Lord, enabled man to take on this role. By pursuing sacred knowledge through confession, the correction of his behavior, and the contemplation of the wonder of creation, men were able to improve the likelihood of salvation.

The inclusion of religious messages in their anatomical teachings meant that the Jesuits were offering their Chinese readers a soteriology. The Jesuit discourse of the body in seventeenth-century China included far more than what we today think of as “anatomy”. By associating the function of the body with the Confucian concept of ke-chih, the Jesuits dexterously solved the problem of subjectivity in moral practice that had troubled so many Confucian literati in the late Ming, and thus provided grounds for including a new religion in the Chinese collection of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism.


Key Words: Jesuits, medicine, anatomy, Christianity